Tribalism and the New Racism in Italy

Marco Aime            January 2018

In the post-racial era in which we are living today, a new lexicon is needed. Scientifically baseless, the concept of race has found new forms of expression, for which we need new names. It is no longer enough that modern sciences dismantled the idea of race, to make ‘racism’ disappear. Because this is where the roots lie: it is racism that produced the idea of race, not the other way around. And nowadays it produces new forms of discrimination and exclusion that are dangerously resurging after half a century of apparent oblivion.

Italy had already shown proof of racism by promulgating the 1938 Racial laws under the fascist dictatorship. After the tragedy of the Shoah, it was a shared belief that this was an episode forever filed away in the dusty archives of history. Instead, the last three decades have witnessed the gradual emergence of groups and political movements that  have substituted the grand narrative of the twentieth century, upon which were founded the classic ideologies, liberal as well as socialist, with  a new proposal: the ethnic one. New, but old in reality, in fact, this political proposal, once out in the public arena, must present itself with a good dose of historical substantiation and an even better dose of potential for innovation. Therefore, one side looks to history, while the other side throws out new ideas, or seemingly so[1].

By betting on values like identity, roots, nativism, and offering the image of a renewed Italian people, historically fake, but ancient and real in the adopted discourse, such movements, like the Northern League in Italy, have enriched the political scene with unprecedented categories that elude traditional analysis. The uncertainty and changes brought by globalization, migration and reductions in the welfare state have contributed to the growth of a true and real ‘identity obsession’[2] at the foundation of localism that frequently translate into forms of exclusion, xenophobia. These policies often result in true and real racism, playing on the fertile land of the weak sense of national identity hold by most Italians, and their fear towards the foreigners, mostly generated by misleading media campaigns.

Retracing the path taken by the Northern League in constructing their world view, and its accompanying discourse, a continuous swing can be noticed between old concepts presented as new and, vice versa, new elements presented as traditional: the attack to the nation, the creature and pride of the ‘civilised’ West, perhaps is not a return to the past but a figure of our modernity, because ‘the multiplication of ethnic, cultural or religious clashes in the world do not actually correspond to some vague return to tradition, but points at, to the contrary, a situation of global balkanisation in which we found ourselves in’.[3] This situation represents a gradual ethnicisation of society, which in some ways is bringing back forms of tribalism.

The emergence of localisms ever more extreme, and particularly of the ethnic type that often results in racism, coincides with the decline of the social. The classical horizontal grouping of the population based on social, ideological and class considerations, is substituted by vertical layers based on ties with the land and blood, according to the principles of nativism, or ‘national values’. The loss of the great narratives and the fragmentation of the economy have made the traditional claims seemingly obsolete. These fragmented identities, freed from universal ideals, have become niches of defense. The identity of the individual, icon of our postmodernity, requires in turn the invention of a sort of organising mechanism, of a series of theoretical and practical points of reference, to support its construction and keep it alive. Thus new actors are born, charged with supporting individuals rendered fragile by the disappearance of the collective identities of class. As Jean-Loup Amselle observes, the individual, the culture, and the return to origins are the watchwords in a globalised postmodernity. Since the fate of the inhabitants of the planet can no longer be improved by the redistribution of wealth (the proceeds of growth), new ideologies must be found to leverage the individual’s identity, his/her cultural and psychic resources, to replace the deceased narrative of the society of abundance. These are the characteristics of the tribalised and primitivised ‘new age’ that is offered to us.  However, the tribes that we are talking about are collections of individuals who have little to do with those described by traditional anthropology. In fact, the culture of these groups is not based on a true shared tradition, but is the product of individual identification choices, gathered in temporary collectives and built to satisfy specific interests. In the political rhetoric of the movements that make identity their cornerstone, we can easily notice how that identity is often surrounded by romantic and nostalgic terms: the people, the tradition, and the possessive ‘our’ becomes the master’s face in every sentence. A manifestation of this is to be found in the Northern League’s call for the right to have local teachers, magistrates and officials.

The excessive overexposure of identity, of a single identity, risks transforming us into one-dimensional beings. The problem is even more serious if the only dimension is ethnic and tribal. Read in this key, according to which individuals would be dominated and caged in by their tribal tradition— unable to change their vision of the world— culture is ascribed almost a given trait, bound to their territory, almost a genetic character from which it is not possible to escape.

The tendency to ‘naturalise’ becomes stronger, and very often, putting that fiction into practice, transforms ethnic belonging into nation or community. From a socially and historically constructed element, culture ends up being instead conceived as ‘biological’. It is called culture, but we think race, and a racial conception of culture can also lead to a kind of race-free racism.


Marco Aime is an Anthropologist. He teaches cultural anthropology at the Universitá di Genova, Italy.

[1] M. Aime, Verdi tribù del nord., Laterza, Bari, 2012.

[2] F. Remotti, L’ossessione identitaria, Laterza, Bari-Roma, 2010.

[3] J.-L. Amselle, Connessioni, Antropologia dell’universalità delle culture, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino, 2001, p. 44.